Tips From an Attorney On Managing Office Romance

When romance happens in the office, there are more than 2 people involved.  A workplace romance involves everyone who interacts with the couple, and there are a multitude of legal risks – even if the romance is a happy one.

Valentine’s Day is behind us.  The first glow of hearts and wine, perhaps, has faded.  For HR professionals facing the fallout of a workplace romance gone bad, it may be time to analyze what we could have done prior to the breakup.

 Top 10 Tips for Managing an Office Romance.  Tweet This

1.     Draft realistic policies and apply them uniformly: 

Don’t create a policy you will not or cannot enforce.  Create a policy that is enforceable for reasons not based on the relationship.  Prohibit relationships that create an actual or perceived conflict of interest, prohibit or control relationships between supervisors and subordinates, and clearly state the company’s expectation of management conduct.   Managers should be required to disclose relationships with subordinate employees.  Eliminate direct reporting relationships between involved employees, and make certain a supervisor is not in a position to advance the paramour’s career unless you want a lawsuit by the paramour’s coworkers.  Require people to behave in a professional manner and keep their personal relationships out of the work environment.  That doesn’t mean they cannot have them.  It means that involved employees should leave the relationship drama at home.  Clearly state the potential consequences for violating the policy.

2.     Conduct regular training: 

What is the company’s sex harassment policy?  The mechanism for reporting complaints?  Do you train managers and supervisors?  Companies that can produce  evidence of yearly training and a well-published anti-harassment policy enhance their ability to establish an affirmative defense to sex harassment claims.

3.     Consider using a “love contract” when a consensual relationship is brought to the company’s attention:

Why do I hear the theme song from The Love Boat? The Contract should contain acknowledgments by both parties:

  • The relationship is entirely voluntary.
  • The relationship will not have a negative impact on work.
  • They will not engage in any public displays of affection or other behavior that creates a hostile work environment for others or that makes others uncomfortable.
  • They will act professionally towards each other at all times, even after the relationship has ended.
  • They will not participate in any company decision-making processes that could affect the other’s pay, promotional opportunities, performance reviews, hours, shifts, or career.
  • They agree that, if the relationship ends, they will inform the Company if they believe it is necessary to protect their rights or if the Harassment-Free Workplace Policy is violated.
  • They agree that, if the relationship ends, they will respect the other person’s decision to end the relationship. They will not retaliate against the other person, seek to resume the relationship, or engage in any other conduct towards the other person that could violate the policy prohibiting harassment, discrimination or retaliation.

4.     Once a relationship is reported, confirm it is truly consensual: 

Yes, they signed the Love Contract but is the relationship truly voluntary and consensual?  In separate conversations with each party, advise them of the company’s sexual harassment and have them sign a copy. Stress the importance of professionalism at all work-related activities.  Expressly advise against favoritism or a conflict of interest and, if the relationship ends, advise them to report any harassing conduct.

5.    Limit involvement with a couple’s problems to only those that directly affect the job or the company: 

Don’t go digging for gossip or get involved in squabbles between romantically involved employees.  Employers should concern themselves with the potential or actual effect of a relationship on the person’s ability to do their job, nothing else.

6.     Document everything.

7.     Prohibit manager and subordinate relationships:

 To strongly discourage the continuance of such a relationship, require one to transfer to a different position (if available) or resign, or be terminated. Let them choose who will move/be terminated – if they will not or do not choose, advise them the company will make the decision, and then do so for documented business reasons.

8.     Advise employees that the company monitors all email correspondence and other forms of communication utilizing company equipment: 

Not only is everyone else’s productivity impacted by gossip and speculation, the involved employees themselves may be devoting work time to romancing each other.  Address this issue with the couple and show how the company monitors email traffic from all employees, including those who are not involved in office romances.

9.     Implement strong harassment and discrimination policies and consistently enforce them: 

Strictly follow the guidelines and procedures in your written policies. Furthermore, make sure your supervisors and other employees do not retaliate against any person for lodging a complaint.

10.     Consider establishing a harassment hotline: 

Companies should consider establishing an anonymous “harassment hotline.” Hotlines may eliminate an employee’s claim that he or she was unable or afraid to report harassment or discrimination.

How do you manage office romances? 

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Mary Wright

Mary Wright is the Founding Editor of HR Gazette, an online magazine for HR professionals and employment lawyers. She is an employment lawyer with 25+ years' experience in helping employers reach workable business solutions to complex human resource problems. She is currently a Shareholder with Ogletree Deakins and the firm's former General Counsel. Connect with Mary.


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